The Alaskan wilderness is a fisherman’s paradise, one not solely reserved for wealthy individuals. By learning to fish as the locals do, without guides, such fishing expeditions do not have to be expensive. All it takes is the desire to camp out and explore remote areas by raft and foot.
It was a gray afternoon in early July, and there were five of us fishing a remote salmon stream on the Alaskan peninsula, somewhere inside Katmai National Park. The reasons for our being there were in the water–king and chum salmon in numbers too great for a census, along with grayling, Dolly Varden and big rainbows. What was better, we had the stream all to ourselves, a fish-to-fishers ratio we found suitable because we sought solitude as well as fish. We were also trying to determine if it was possible for out-of-state sportsmen to fish Alaska on a budget, without compromising on the quality of the fishing or the experience.
Most anglers dream of catching salmon and trout in Alaskan wilderness streams; many never fulfill that dream because they think such an adventure is reserved for the rich. Not true, if you fish the way Alaskans do, without a guide, camping out and exploring remote streams and rivers on your own, by raft, on foot, or a little of both. That’s what we did and it worked.
Our base in King Salmon was the Ponderosa Inn. To get the cast of characters out of the way, our group included Tony Oswald, a professional photographer and flyfishing instructor; his friend from Colorado, Jeannie Chandler; my wife, Leslie; my 22-year-old son, Marc; and me. The Ponderosa was low on aesthetics and luxuries but high in affordability. A double room, with comfortable beds, enough space for gear, and plenty of hot water, went for $200 a night with three meals included. The food was not for devotees of cuisine minceur: bacon, eggs, sausages and pancakes for breakfast, pot roast for lunch, steak or roast beef at dinner, and the dining-room sign that said “All You Can Eat” had no fine-print clauses carefully hidden at the bottom.
After two nights there and a day of fishing on the nearby Naknek River, we flew out to Katmai in Van Hartley’s floatplane, a DeHavilland Beaver. It was a rugged old bush plane, and Hartley, thickly built and bearded, looked like a central casting bush pilot. For the do-it-on-your-own angler or hunter in Alaska, the fly-out is the greatest expense, but it is necessary in a state that has 586,000 square miles of territory and only 5000 miles of highway. Rates vary depending on what you want to do, but count on spending between $175 and $195 per person round-trip. The obvious way to keep this cost down is to avoid taking a lot of flights.
For almost an hour we winged low over trackless tundra and spruce forests slashed by winding creeks and ox-bowed rivers. Looking down on one stream, I saw what appeared to be a huge, reddish sandbar in a tailwater pool. It was a school of sockeye salmon, resting before making a run for breeding waters farther upstream. Hartley’s plane touched down on a still lake glimmering like an immense eye under the green brow of a mountain. The creek we were going to fish lay a mile and a half to the east, its course marked by galleries of willows and tag alders. Far beyond it were the white, sharply defined peaks of the Aleutian Range. The Beaver taxied to the south shore of the lake, where a ridge of tundra fells dotted with alder thickets rose gradually. We clambered out of the plane and hauled our backpacks and gear up the ridge, well away from the lakeshore, which was frequented by brown bears. Hartley took off, and we watched the plane grow smaller and smaller against the backdrop of distant mountains and mounting storm clouds, a lonely, dramatic sight. For the next three days, we would be on our own, nearly 150 miles from the nearest human settlement. Because of Alaska’s unpredictable weather, we had brought enough food and supplies for a full week–in case a storm prevented Hartley from picking us up on schedule.